Arundel Cathedral's Corpus Christi floral extravaganza dates back to 1877, but lasts for only one day before being trampled underfoot. Timothy Elphick reports
HOPING to slip unnoticed past the deputy town mayor as he guarded the exit to Arundel Cathedral with a collecting basket, a steady stream of visitors who had come for the annual festival of flowers on Corpus Christi peered up the steps into the main body of the church.
But inside the crowd was on the move, filing in slow procession past four .golden lanterns by the choir for a view of the carpet of flowers, which ran down the full length of the nave like a deep-green Persian rug. And there was little chance of any progress against the general tide.
Arrangements of red, pink and yellow blooms decorated every niche and every statue in the cathedral. Each of its great stone columns was hung with a floral display — some of which were being tugged by people keen to examine the plants, unaware of the tiny hooks that kept them up.
As they moved down the body of the church, visitors climbed along the pews to get up close to the flower carpet, and were prevented from touching it only by blue and white ropes tied across the seats nearest the nave. But from so close it was difficult to catch the full force of the design, of crosses centred by an orb of gold and red, with two white doves at either end.
By the cathedral's main entrance the coaches were still arriving, bringing people from all over England to see the flower carpel, before its destruction underfoot the next day when the Corpus Christi procession with the blessed sacrament would make its way up the hill to the castle grounds for benediction.
"Every year our festival is bigger than the last," explained 87-year-old Liz O'Brien, who with a small band of friends rescued the Arundel flower carpet from certain death 20 years ago.
Begun in 1877 by Henry, the fifteenth Duke of Norfolk, the carpet was made for many years by the gardeners of the Catholic duke's Arundel Castle estate. In time it passed to the care of a local school, but when that closed both the Corpus Christi procession and the flowers seemed lost forever.
"We decided then that there should be a flower festival not just the carpet and procession, so that people could come and see it. You've only got to look in the church to see how many people visit Arundel for the festival now," Liz O'Brien said.
Canon Anthony Whale, the cathedral's administrator (and impromptu salesman on the book stall), stressed that it was impossible to guess at the number of people who see the flowers during their two days on show. "It could be 20,000 — or more than twice that," he said.
"They all take something away with them from their visit here, and many do ask about the cathedral", said Canon Whale. And he pointed out that for some a visit to any church was a rare experience. "Last year one of the stewards was asked by a man who had seen the letters INRI above a crucifix who 'Enr) was!" he said.
But for some in Arundel, like Nora Dewey, the flower carpet and the cathedral's Corpus Christi celebrations have become a family tradition. Many of the small girls in the old photographs exhibited alongside the flowers in the cathedral are still actively involved today. "I have walked with the procession every year since I was three, and that was 80 years ago.
The nuns from St Philip's School used to take us by the
hands. But we would never see the carpet until five o'clock on the day of the procession," Nora Dewey said.
Even today the carpet design is a closely kept secret, known beforehand only by those who are to lay the conifer branches on the cathedral floor and arrange the heads of the flowers according to the pattern of the template.
Then, on the feast of Corpus Christi, the church begins to fill soon after mid-day with people waiting for the ceremonies to start at 5,30 pm (the Duke of Norfolk and his family have the first two rows on the left).
Knights of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre walk in procession from the sacristy to the sanctuary, followed by the bishop and his clergy. And when the mass is over, a reserved host is placed in a monstrance and carried under a canopy of gold thread over the carpet of flowers on its was to the castle quadrangle.
When the cortege returns, the flowers are trodden to a pulp. But the makers of the carpel remain unmoved. "The Lord goes out of the cathedral on a carpet, and comes back on it," said Liz O'Brien.
"Many people say what a pity it is to let the flowers be destroyed, and that we shouldn't let people walk on them. But they don't understand why we do it. It's all right to let the Lord walk on the flowers, don't you think?" she said.
"They are then swept away a waste product I'm afraid and there is nothing left by the evening mass at 8 pm," said Canon Whale. "But the money made by serving the lunches and the teas and from the stalls selling souvenir photographs of the display will be used to huy the flowers for next year's carpet," he said.